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"I wish to talk with you," I said doggedly. "I shall not let you go this time."
"Are you mad to so conduct under the eyes of the whole fort?" she whispered. "Go your way!"
"I'd be madder yet to let you get away again. My way is yours."
She halted, cheeks blazing, and looked at me for the first time.
"I ask you not to persist," she said, "---- for my sake if not for yours. What an officer or a soldier says to a girl in this fort makes her a trull in the eyes of any man who sees. Do you so desire to brand me, Mr. Loskiel?"
"No," I said between my teeth, and turned to leave her. And, I think, it was something in my face that made her whisper low and hurriedly:
"Waiontha Spring! If you needs must see me for a moment more, come there!"
I scarcely heard, so tight emotion had me by the throat, and walked on blindly, all a-quiver. Yet, in my ears the strange wards sounded: "Waiontha-- Waiontha-- come to the Spring Waiontha-- if you needs must see me."
On a settle before the green-log barrack, some of Schott's riflemen were idling, and now stood, seeing an officer.
"Boys," I said, "where is this latest foolery of Tim Murphy hung to dry?"
They seemed ashamed, but told me, As I moved on, I said carelessly, partly turning:
"Where is the Spring Waiontha?"
"On the Lake Trail, sir-- first branch of the Stoney-Kill."
"Is there a house there?"
"A path to find it?"
"A sheep walk only. Rannock is dead. The destructives murdered him when they burned Cherry Valley. Mrs. Rannock brings us eggs and milk."
I walked on and entered the smoky barracks, and the first thing I saw was a pair o' scalps, stretched and hooped, a-dangling from the rafters.
Doubtless, Murphy and Elerson meant to sew them to their bullet pouches when cured and painted. And there was one reckless fellow in my company who wore a baldrick fringed with Shawanese scalps; but as these same Shawanese had murdered his father, mother, grandmother, and three little brothers, no officer rebuked him, although it was a horrid and savage trophy; but if the wearing of it were any comfort to him I do not know.
I looked closely at the ornamented scalps, despite my repugnance. They were not Mohawk, not Cayuga, nor Onondaga. Nor did they seem to me like Seneca, being not oiled and braided clean, but tagged at the root with the claws of a tree-lynx. They were not Oneida, not Lenape. Therefore, they must be Seneca scalps. Which meant that Walter Butler and that spawn of satan, Sayanquarata, were now prowling around our outer pickets. For the ferocious Senecas and their tireless war-chief, Sayanquarata, were Butler's people; the Mohawks and Joseph Brant holding the younger Butler in deep contempt for the cruelty he did practice at Cherry Valley.
Suddenly a shaft of fear struck me like a swift arrow in the breast, as I thought of Butler and of his Mountain Snakes, and of that mad child, Lois, a-gypsying whither her silly inclination led her; and Death in the forest-dusk watching her with a hundred staring eyes.
"This time," I muttered, "I shall put a stop to all her forest-running!" And, at the thought, I turned and passed swiftly through the doorway, across the thronged parade, out of the gate.
Hastening my pace along the Lake Road, meeting many people at first, then fewer, then nobody at all, I presently crossed the first little brook that feeds the Stoney-Kill, leaping from stone to stone. Here in the woods lay the Oneida camp. I saw some squaws there sewing.
The sheep walk branched a dozen yards beyond, running northward through what had been a stump field. It was already grown head-high in weeds and wild flowers, and saplings of bird-cherry, which spring up wherever fire has passed. A few high corn-stalks showed what had been planted there a year ago.
After a few moments following the path, I found that the field ended abruptly, and the solid walls of the forest rose once more like green cliffs towering on every side. And at their base I saw a house of logs, enclosed within a low brush fence, and before it a field of brush.
Shirts and soldiers' blankets lay here and there a-drying on the bushes; a wretched garden-patch showed intensely green between a waste of fire-blackened stumps. I saw chickens in a coop, and a cow switching forest flies. A cloud of butterflies flew up as I approached, where the running water of a tiny rill made muddy hollows on the path. This doubtless must be the outlet to Waiontha Spring, for there to the left a green lane had been bruised through the elder thicket; and this I followed, shouldering my way amid fragrant blossom and sun-hot foliage, then through an alder run, and suddenly out across a gravelly reach where water glimmered in a still and golden pool.
Lois knelt there on the bank. The soldiers' linen I had seen in her arms was piled beside her. In a willow basket, newly woven, I saw a heap of clean, wet shirts and tow-cloth rifle-frocks.
She heard me behind her-- I took care that she should-- but she made no sign that she had heard or knew that I was there. Even when I spoke she continued busy with her suds and shirts; and I walked around the gravelly basin and seated myself near her, cross-legged on the sand, both hands clasping my knees.
"Well?" she asked, still scrubbing, and her hair was fallen in curls about her brow-- hair thicker and brighter, though scarce longer, than my own. But Lord! The wild-rose beauty that flushed her cheeks as she laboured there! And when she at last looked up at me her eyes seemed like two grey stars, full of reflections from the golden pool.
"I have come," said I, "to speak most seriously."
"What is it you wish?"
"A comrade's privilege."
"And what may that be, sir?"
"The right to be heard; the right to be answered-- and a comrade's privilege to offer aid."
"I need no aid."
"None living can truthfully say that," said I pleasantly.
"Oh! Do you then require charity from this pleasant world we live in?"
"I did not offer charity to you."
"You spoke of aid," she said coldly.
"Lois-- is there in our brief companionship no memory that may warrant my speaking as honestly as I speak to you?"
"I know of none, Do you?"
I had been looking at her chilled pink fingers. My ring was gone.
"A ring for a rose is my only warrant," I said.
She continued to soap the linen and to scrub in silence. After she had finished the garment and wrung it dry, she straightened her supple figure where she was kneeling, and, turning toward me, searched in her bosom with one little, wet hand, drawing from it a faded ribbon on which my ring hung.
"Do you desire to have it of me again?" she asked, without any expression on her sun-freckled face.
"What? The ring?"
"Aye "Desire it!" I repeated, turning red. "No more than you desire the withered bud you left beside me while I slept."
"What bud, sir?"
"Did you not leave me a rose-bud?"
"And a bit of silver birch-bark scratched with a knife point?"
"Now that I think of it, perhaps I may have done so-- or some such thing-- scarce knowing what I was about-- and being sleepy. What was it that I wrote? I can not now remember-- being so sleepy when I did it."
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The Hidden Children -by- Robert W. Chambers